An Agenda for the Great Lakes Region

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July 6, 2011

While he didn’t get the details right, Joel Garreau was onto something when he wrote Nine Nations of North America in 1981. Too often, we look at North America as three nations, when in fact it is also comprised of 94 states, provinces, and territories. In economic terms, supply-chain dynamics have made North America a series of regions.

The most dynamic is the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Region (GLSLR). Home to nearly 35 million people, and with a population slightly larger than Canada, the two provinces (Ontario, Quebec) and eight states (New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Minnesota) of the Great Lakes region constitute a super “economy,” which is only eclipsed in gross domestic product by the U.S., Japan, and China.

Regions deserve greater attention, especially into the vital supply-chain dynamics that sustain them. Last year, the Brookings Institute’s Jennifer Vey, John Austin, and Jennifer Bradley co-authored a paper that argued that, notwithstanding the affliction of the “Rust Belt,” the GLSLR “still has many of the fundamental resources – top-ranked universities, companies with deep experience in global trade, and emerging centres of clean-energy research, to name just a few – necessary to create a better, more sustainable, economic model.”

Building on this work, the Mowat Centre’s Joshua Hjartson, Matthew Mendelsohn, Allison Bramwell, and Kelly Hinton released The Vital Commons, in which they argue that “the wealth and infrastructure built over the 20th century” in the GLSLR “created the foundation for new emerging sectors” in areas including financial services, health care, food processing, energy, aerospace, information and communications technology, transportation, and pharmaceuticals. But a shared future for the GLSLR requires a shared vision “to act and think collectively, transcending national boundaries to address shared problems, manage shared resources, and take advantage of new economic opportunities.”

With this objective in mind, under the umbrella of the Mowat Centre and Brookings Institute, over 300 participants met in the St. Clair College Centre for the Arts, a short walk from the banks of the Detroit River looking north to Detroit. Over two days (June 21-2), we listened, discussed, and debated through a couple dozen plenaries, keynotes, and idea labs constructed around issues in the GLSLR, including human capital, transportation and infrastructure, water, trade and border issues, agriculture, innovation, manufacturing, clean energy and electricity, the blue economy, and tourism.

The challenge of the border for the GLSLR was brought home on the first evening, when delegates crossed the frontier and, notwithstanding the hope of pre-clearance, were obliged to go through a secondary search before re-boarding the buses taking them to enjoy the hospitality of Canadian Consul General Roy Norton in downtown Detroit’s Max Fisher Music Center.

If we are to be truly competitive, we must find a better way of managing the legitimate passage of people and goods. The Beyond the Borders Initiative launched in February by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama offers promise, but as former premier Gordon Campbell told delegates, political will also requires considerable behind-the-scenes work by business and government.

The GLSLR contains our busiest border crossings and, because so much of the boundary line is on water, the border is dominated by bridges. This presents unique challenges for just-in-time delivery. The first step should be the easiest: having inspection for all government services at each of the region’s crossing available 24/7, because our competition overseas does not work 9-5.

But the top priority in the GLSLR has to be the construction of the New International Trade Crossing between Windsor and Detroit, especially as the recovery picks up speed – trade between Michigan and Canada rose 43 per cent from 2009 to 2010. The 7,000 trucks that cross the Ambassador Bridge daily contain over a quarter of the goods traded between Canada and the United States. Any interruption in traffic on this 80-year-old, privately owned bridge means layoffs: thousands in the first day and tens of thousands stretching south to the Carolinas into day two.

The need for a new crossing was one of the key themes of the two-day conference, and was driven home by both American and Canadian participants. Michigan Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville acknowledged that special interests and the spending of lots of money have circumvented and delayed what should be an obvious task, but he promised delegates that, by the fall, he and Governor Rick Snyder should have the votes to secure passage through the Michigan legislature.

It can’t be soon enough for those who live and work in the GLSLR. The international competition is not waiting for us to get our act together.

Knitting the various components of regional co-operation together is the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER). Its core is the continuing support of legislators in five states (Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana), three provinces (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan), and two territories (the Yukon and the Northwest Territories). This year, it celebrates its twentieth anniversary. Based in Seattle, with a small, very efficient secretariat, it works because it is a true non-partisan, bi-national, public-private partnership. As former premier Campbell acknowledged, it was PNWER, working, under his direction and that of Washington Governor Chris Gregoire, with a grassroots movement, that persuaded Homeland Security to accept the “smart drivers’ licence” as a practical means to address cross-border traffic during the Vancouver Olympics. The “smart drivers’ license” has seen been rolled out by states and provinces on both sides of the 49th parallel. It confirms another observation from the Windsor Summit: When provincial and state legislators get their acts together, federal governments join the parade.

Conferences are brain food, but it is the follow up in ideas and proposals that makes them practical to policy-makers. The Windsor Summit leadership of John Austin and Matthew Mendelson intend to carry the momentum forward and, in October, release a revised version of The Vital Commons that will identify actionable agenda items for various sectors in the GLSLR.